Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Christ-Haunted Culture

I just had an experience reading a post on Glory to God for All Things blog by Fr. Stephen. The post is entitled Orthodoxy and the Christ-Haunted Culture of the South. It's hard for me to even describe this post, but it moved me deeply, it blessed me, and I wanted to share it with others for whom it might do the same. You can link to the post by clicking the title just above. If you do, and if it doesn't bless you, just stop reading and forget about it—it must not be for you. But if it is, I hope you are blessed by it as much as I was. Here's a little excerpt, a couple of my favorite passages…

Orthodoxy is the only Church that puts it all together: the mind in the heart, the body and the spirit, the word and the image, grace and freedom, the good God who loves mankind. This is the “evangel”: the Good News for the South. Her deepest longings are met here. As Vladyko [the retiring Orthodox archbishop of Dallas] has taught us, all that is good and true in Southern Protestantism is here. Jesus and the Holy Ghost are here: the real Jesus confessed as Lord and God and Saviour, risen from the dead. We are steeped in the Bible and love to hear its cadences. We also know that deep sense of the irony and mystery of human life, that yearning for something lost. The writers of the Bible knew this yearning well: By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. This yearning is really a yearning for the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.
Let us not make of Orthodoxy another law to be obeyed, another head religion to feel proud of, another emotional trip, another escape to some other world. Let us proclaim it as the Good News that the people of the South and every land are hungry for.

Monday, March 23, 2009


A fellow Christian blogger recently wrote…

My grandmother impacted me. She changed who I am. I think most people who know me would consider me both gentle and provocative. I don’t generally let my kids win when we play games. I am changing the world through these, and many more important ways. I will be dead someday. And the people who I impact will change the world, too.

I truly believe we will live forever in a much more literal way. There is that kind of immortality. But that doesn’t diminish this kind of immortality. Yes, I remember my grandmother. But more than that, I’ve been changed by her, made a better person by her. This is no small thing, and it’s a much bigger thing than mere memories.
[Italics added.]

Not to detract or even contradict what he was expressing, it made me think the thoughts he wrote through to another level of reality, that which is emphasized in my Orthodox faith, and I left the following comment which I'd like to share as a ramble on immortality…

Immortality, in the sense usually meant by some types of Christians and other “spiritual” seekers, is either a “die and go to heaven” or a “die and be admitted into a higher plane of being” mentality, neither of which have any substance in reality.

Something which I think you are hinting at in this post is, on the other hand, closer to the truth than what most people, Christians included, are willing to admit: Real immortality is much closer to the immortality of fame in the human world than it is to the mythical or fairy-tale versions of immortality one finds in religion.

Immortality as fame means that your name will never die out, that people will remember you, at least your name, for hundreds, even thousands, of years. Though we may not know much about Confucius, Julius Caesar, or William Shakespeare, most of us know the names as household words almost. And not a few people actually do know these men through familiarity with their thoughts. And if any part of us should deserve immortality, I think it must be our thought, that which made us what we are. So, the famous men and women of history, in their thousands, have immortality among us as long as the human race lasts. And how?

They are immortal because of memory.

We remember them. We remember and pass on, generation by generation, this memory of them. Does our remembering these people confer on them anything like real immortality, that is, eternal life? Well, no, it doesn’t. That’s where the comparison has run its course. But where it leaves off, something else takes over.

In the Orthodox Church, at every service of the
Divine Liturgy we hear the words proclaimed, “May the Lord remember you in His Kingdom, now and always and unto the ages of ages!” as the priests and deacons process through the temple bearing in their hands the bread and wine which will become, by the operation of the Holy Spirit, the mystery of Christ’s Body and Blood. While they’re carrying it, it isn’t that yet, it’s still just bread and wine, though the bread has already been divided into dozens of small chunks, each piece having been prayed over in memory of human beings, alive or dead, prayed over and brought to God’s attention, for His help. So, in an odd sort of way, the bread at least has already ceased being ordinary bread; it has started on its journey, having become by this stage true prosphora or offering.

We also, in the Orthodox service, pray this prayer before receiving communion, “…but as the thief I confess to you, Lord, remember me in Your Kingdom.”

Hence we see that, in Orthodox Christian terms anyway, the place of memory or remembrance in the reality of eternal life is absolutely essential. While our remembrance of famous people gives them a figurative immortality, because we are just creatures ourselves, it is God’s remembrance of us that gives us real immortality, real eternal life. We exist even now because it is God who is thinking of us, upholding the reality of our being by His thought, by His memory. When we come to the end of our physical lives, it is the same:
God remembers us, and hence we live.

In scripture, there is very little content as to the nature of “heaven” or the life immortal, or eternal life, only the word of Jesus, who says to us that it is in Him that we live forever.

In Him? And how is this? By His thinking of us, again, by memory, as the thief cried out, “Remember me when You come into Your Kingdom! and Jesus’ response, “This day you will be with Me in paradise!”

We really have nothing else to go on.

Even the whole of the Old Testament gives no assurances, only expressions of faith and hope in God’s mercy, “This I know, that my Redeemer lives, and from my flesh I will look on God” (Job) or even of agnostic abandon, “Who knows if the spirit of man goes up, and the soul of the beast down to the earth” (Ecclesiastes).

It all hinges on memory, that YHWH, the Holy One of Israel, remembers us.

And if He remembers us,
we indeed are immortal.

“Receive me today, O Son of God, as partaker of Thy Mystical Supper, for I will not speak of Thy Mystery to Thine enemies; neither will I give Thee a kiss as did Judas, but like the thief will I confess Thee: Remember me,
O Lord, in Thy Kingdom.”

Friday, March 13, 2009

Absolute abandonment

I have nothing worthy of my own to say, but I found these poems written by our brother The Postman today, and I want to share them with you. The first starts out with a quotation from the martyr Jim Elliott, who once wrote… "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose." Click on the linked quotation to go to the poem Absolute abandonment, from which this excerpt is taken, to encourage you…

"Am I your Master?
Your Lord and Saviour?
Am I the One you will question?
Am I not your Redeemer?
The One who bought you with a price,
Not of corruptible things?
Am I not the King of kings?
The Lord of lords?
The One who holds the keys?
The One who measures the universe
With the span of His fingers?
Who holds the waters
In the hollow of His palm?
Speak and be not silent ...
Am I not the Alpha and the Omega?"

The second poem, Emmaus, is in the post entitled Follow or Forsake? I am quoting only a short verse that appealed strongly to me. Please click on the linked post title and go to read this second poem. You will be blessed, as I was, to read it.

A fool I was to hold on,
That which I could not keep;
Even the camel seemed to find
The eye of the needle broad and wide.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Firm but gentle

It was the early morning work day commute on a busy street, drivers racing to be first in line at the on-ramp. The twilight was misty and cold. On the right-hand sidewalk a little gaggle of poor day laborers and homeless men were huddled trying to feel warm in each other’s smoky presence, hands wrapped around paper cups of cheap coffee from the Seven-Eleven on the left-hand side of the street. Suddenly in the meridian from behind a car paused in the turning lane, another poor man appeared, coffee cup in hand, timidly assessing his chances of scooting across the two car-filled lanes, one of which I was in. The fellow was moving slowly too, not because he was timid, but I got the impression he probably couldn’t move any faster. The look on his face was one of sheepishness mixed with shame, and just a little hope, as he waited for his chance to make the crossing there in the middle of a block. The cars ahead of me just sped up as they passed him, one honking callously, as if hurrying past a leper. As I came up to him, I slowed down, intending to stop, with no one behind me. The man looked perplexed, and motioned for me to keep driving. This was a case of a human at risk, regardless of right and wrong, and the law does say, after all, that pedestrians have the right of way, and not just at official cross walks. I came to a full stop about twelve feet away from him, looked him in the eye, pointed at him briskly, and then turned the direction of my left hand and jerkily pointed right towards the sidewalk. He understood, and obediently followed my direction, firm but gentle. We smiled at each other, and he crossed, hobbling. I was right. There was something wrong with his powers of locomotion.

The poor you will always have with you; you will not always have Me.
This was a case of “the poor you will always have with you.” For the man who has his eye on Jesus, to follow Him in doing what he sees Him doing, the plan of action is always clear: Whatsoever you do to the least of My brothers, that you do unto Me.

There are many kinds of people in the world, and many kinds of Christians. Some are unbelievers, others are believers, and some are followers. In these three categories there are people who identify themselves as Christians, and those who don’t. We can’t classify ourselves as to which category we belong to any more than we can classify ourselves as white or colored, male or female. We just do what we do because we are who we are. God knows us better than we know ourselves, and we can’t fool Him by pious acts or humanistic posing. He knows our hearts. He knows who is with Him and who is against Him.

Though we didn’t have a choice whether or not to be born, we do have a choice whether or not to be born again. We may have started out like one of those in the crowd of five thousand that were drawn to hear Jesus speak, and we may even have received not only His words but also been fed by Him. We may be like one of those in that crowd, some of whom were unbelievers and others believers, but which group we really belonged to was finally revealed at the steps of the procurator’s office, where we chanted either, “Jesus” or “Barabbas” or even “Crucify him!”

As long as we haven’t chosen to be born again, born from above, we remain part of the vast ochlos (Greek: “crowd”), whose true beliefs and priorities are hidden from others and even from ourselves. We may call ourselves Christians or maybe we don’t, but God doesn’t recognize names, He gives them.

To respond to the call of Christ removes us for all time from the ochlos and places us among the Twelve. Our belief, our poor faith and our initial anxiety, get suddenly replaced by the certainty of recognition, knowing for sure that “it is me” He is pointing to so firmly, that “it is me” He is looking so hard at eye to eye, and that “it is me” He is directing to cross to the other side, to safety, along the secure bridge of a gentle, shared smile.

And we find that just as He has treated us, with firm direction but gentle sympathy for our weaknesses, and unmixed good will, we are ourselves able to treat others in the very same way, replicating in the daily frailty of our human natures, even by little things, the abundant life He has given us to share with others.

“…like a tree that is planted, deep-rooted, by streams of water, yielding its fruit in season, its leaves never fading.”

Monday, March 2, 2009


A Christian blogger wrote…

When I do something I know is wrong, I’ll justify it by planning on doing something which is exceptionally moral. Or sometimes, I’ll put a twist on this. I’ll do something wrong, and then I’ll use this to get some good result… I cheat on my taxes, perhaps, but donate the money to a good charity. We keep these mental score cards. We think, at the end of the day, if we’ve shown a profit of goodness that we are a good person. Somewhere deep down, we even maybe believe that this balance sheet will either get us into heaven or keep us out of heaven.

People think this way because they also think that they can get enough of Jesus, whether or not they admit it. When you know that you can’t get enough of Jesus, your pursuit of Him in every moment, pursuit in the sense of following not seeking (as many people mean), causes the weighing and counting mentality to evaporate,
“gone like snow on the water.”

When parents are raising a family, they somehow think they have to ease their kids into Christianity, make it pleasant for them, so they are not discouraged and give up. Church leaders do the same with their congregations. Orthodox bishops will give the people permission to sit down during long services when we would normally be standing. That’s dadliness for you, but it sends the wrong message.

Following Christ is not really as hard as people make it out to be. Developing personal discipline does not have to be a “ladder to heaven” mentality. The fact we exist at all is ample proof of the love of God, who doesn’t create us just to destroy us if we aren’t perfect. Our living lives of personal self-discipline is just doing what we have to do to fit into God’s family, because we are part of it by His grace. He adopted us orphans and we don’t want to disappoint Him.
We don’t want to embarass Him in front of His enemies.

Our kids should see us living our lives this way, and it should make them want to “grow up to be like Mom and Dad” rather than their opposite. So don’t cheat them out of their inheritance by offering them cheap grace.

Jesus says, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

But what does He mean by “perfect”?
The sun shines on bad men as well as good, and the rains come down on the fields of the wicked as well as those of the righteous.

The perfection Jesus exhorts us to is not moral perfection as a human achievement, but the kind of incorruptible life that is so confident in the providence of God that it takes no notice of external conditions, but lives in a state of unshakable certainty. Why? Because we are the recipients of “an unshakable kingdom.”

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Even greater works

One of my favorite sayings, which I stole from a Belgian Roman Catholic priest (eventually he fell under that church’s displeasure) and added to the storehouse of Orthodoxy is this:
“Jesus is still the most active person in the history of the world.”

When I first read this in Fr. Louis Evely's wonderful book That Man Is You, it struck me like a bolt of lightning.
I’d always believed in Jesus' historicity as recounted in the Bible, and I believed along with the whole Church that He suffered, died, was raised from the dead, and ascended into heaven. That meant that He is ‘up there’ at the right hand of Divine Majesty interceding for us, and all the talk about ‘Christ is in our midst’ and ‘I have Jesus in my heart’ had to be just metaphorical, sort of a jumpstart for people's faith, using their imaginations.

But after nearly three and half decades as a follower of Jesus, my understanding has been transformed gradually. Yes, the Lord Jesus did ascend into heaven, but in a very real and actual sense, He is still in our midst, still among us. He is the truly undead God-Man.

Every other historical person, religious figure, etc., died and that's that.
Some of their believers may think that they can still help them from beyond the grave, but facts are facts, they died, and no amount of prayers to them will help anyone an iota.

But Jesus is different.
We don't have to reduce Him to some kind of ancient guru with powers of bi-location (being in two places at once); that’s what our limited human imagination wants to do. Christ Jesus is, again I say, the undead God-Man.

The dead are buried and gone (or dead and ascended as New Age masters are claimed to be). But this Jesus was dead and buried, but He didn't stay that way.

His presence before the Father now that He has ascended—whatever that really means—is actually no different than when He walked the earth as God-Man.

Then, He was present before the Father, and present with us.
The first we (or rather, His original disciples) took on faith, the second they saw with their own eyes.

Now, He is present before the Father (at His right hand, really), and present with us. The first we take as a doctrinal fact, the second we must take on faith.

If Christ really is among us, or “in our midst” as the Orthodox phrase it, then it makes sense for us to walk in His presence, and follow Him bodily into the world where He is going every day, every hour, every minute of every day.

If we exercise our faith, it will develop to the point where we can actually “see” Jesus with us, leading the way.
This is our goal as His disciples, to follow Him as He goes out into today’s world “seeking that which is lost,” and to do what we see Him doing there.

I tell you most solemnly, whoever believes in Me will perform the same works as I do Myself, he will perform even greater works, because I am going to the Father.
John 14:12 Jerusalem Bible

Why does Jesus say we “will perform even greater works, because [He is] going to the Father”? Does this “going to the Father” inaugurate a Divine absence?

No, His ascension to sit at the Father’s right hand was a going up in power, inaugurating not a period of absence but, instead, one of hidden presence.

In His 33 earthly years in the old human body, Jesus was limited, self-limited,
“emptying Himself to assume the conditions” of our mortality.

Now that He has been raised in an imperishable body, He is limited no more, except by our failure to find Him among us, “in our midst,” and to follow Him as He goes among us, seeking His lost sheep.